Megabus, California Shuttle Bus cheap travel options for students

The Megabus experienceOver the past four years, Megabus and I have grown up together. Megabus, Coach USA's low-budget express bus service, began in April 2006, and I graduated high school one month later. Discount coach services are tailor-made for students and, lucky for me, Megabus selected Chicago as their Midwestern hub with services to cities like Cleveland, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Detroit, just as I left my Cleveland-area home to attend college in Chicago.

I have taken more than 30 trips on Megabus. Its whole shtick is offering tickets for as low as a $1. I've heard people complain that those seats don't exist, but I'm here to tell you they do. I've gotten a round-trip ticket for 75 cents when they were offering free trips one-way. It was a lucky buy, but I've been able to regularly pay $5 or less. The further in advance you can buy your ticket, the cheaper it's likely to be. But these prices aren't guaranteed and neither is a refund if you accidentally book the wrong trip.

Five dollars is exactly how much I paid on my most recent trip home to Cleveland for Easter break. While some things about the trip were just like always, Megabus has certainly received some upgrades. Now, Megabus sports slick double-decker buses with built-in TVs, heat and A/C, WiFi, and even plugs for laptops. But it wasn't always so plush. You could easily expect to be either freezing or sweating, and once, due to insecure windows, I'm positive it was snowing inside the bus. And until recently, Megabus was regularly late and you could expect to wait for an hour in the cold. Megabus doesn't have actual bus stops, rather they "borrow" street corners near city landmarks marked only by a small sign.

What has remained a regular staple of the Megabus is the crowd: mostly students. On this most recent trip, I learned, the three people seated behind me were students at Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University and Robert Morris University. And everyone in my immediate seating area appeared no older than 22. As such a cheap alternative to flying, Megabus is an obvious choice for students. The tolls alone from Chicago to Cleveland cost more than $20. With service morning, afternoon, and overnight, students can plan travel around their class schedule.

Students also seemed to make up the crowd on a similar inexpensive bus service California Shuttle Bus. This bus runs from the San Francisco area to Los Angeles, making stops in places like San Jose and Santa Monica. With prices starting at $25, this provides a West Coast budget-friendly alternative to students from schools like the University of San Francisco, San José State University and UCLA.

When traveling by bus, it's best to be prepared. Here's a few lessons, I've learned from bus travel:

  • Be prompt. Given Megabus' affinity for tardiness, this may seem like an odd tip, but if the bus does arrive on time, the driver will not wait for anyone. Megabus does not keep track of your phone number or even your name. You are your reservation number. I've heard of people chasing it down and others who missed their buses completely. I arrived 50 minutes early on this recent trip and the bus departed at its scheduled time. Megabus does make a rest stop, but I've heard of people getting left behind there, too. Pay attention to the time that the driver says to be back on the bus: He/she means it.
  • Check and double check your ticket. Once my friend accidentally bought two tickets going from Chicago to Cleveland instead of a round trip. Megabus wouldn't let her change it and the trip was sold out. She ended up buying an expensive day-of plane ticket. Another time, as we were just exiting Chicago, the guy next to me looked at me with horror as our bus headed towards Indiana. He said, "This bus isn't going to St. Louis?" The driver said he could either take the bus to Toledo, or get off at the Chicago Skyway toll booth and find his way back into the city. He got off.
  • Expect the unexpected. I used to say, you get what you pay for with Megabus: snow inside, late buses, unruly drivers, sitting on the side of the road for an hour because your driver turned his speeding ticket into an extended smoke break. But now for the most part, the service is legit but some remnants of the old Megabus remain. I had high hopes for the Wi-Fi but the signal was so infrequent I gave up. And while the most recent driver was prompt, she lacked basic maneuvering skills. She went the wrong way off the exit and when she tried to turn around she hit a curb, jolting everyone in the bus and blocking traffic for five minutes until she was on her way again. Twice.
  • Don't make plans. On my recent spring break trip on the California Shuttle Bus, I had no idea the bus would make an hour's worth of stops before leaving the bay-area. The bus ride took up the majority of my day and while the driver and staff were much friendlier than the usual Megabus crowd, I missed an entire day of sightseeing. Know that your ride is subject to traffic, weather and many stops along the way.
There's no "students only" sign but Megabus and other discount bus services are smart choices for students, offering a trusting travel environment and an inexpensive way home for a break. And if you're lucky enough to be on an uncrowded bus, you can sprawl out across two seats and watch the corn fields pass by.
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